*This is the unedited work of a third party and may not reflect the opinions or values of Kinetic Syndicate*

We arrived back in Hawaii on my birthday in March of 2005. We had just returned from the trip of lifetime. Not all of us came back. In fact, our company lost a platoon of Marines. I wasn’t a hero. I was part of a battalion sized unit, just 1 of 800 Marines. A dubious mission launched from an amphibious support ship in the Persian Gulf, landed us in the middle of the biggest battle of the Iraq War: Fallujah II/ Phantom Fury in November 2004. It was my third deployment, my first combat tour, and I was not ready. I stepped up like everyone else from my unit, but we were not trained or equipped for an urban, desert environment. The prestigious opportunity presented a double edged sword. On one side, one can never be fully prepared to digest their first taste of combat. On the other, testing one’s mettle and surviving the gauntlet on raw instinct and luck, with minimal gear and training attaches a certain distinction of undeniable pride and resilience. Looking back, I am grateful for the experience, even though it changed my life profoundly for better and worse. 

I was lucky. I came home with all my arms, legs, fingers, and toes. I had nothing to complain about. I was pretty optimistic about not having a plan and letting the chips fall where they may. Admittedly, I adopted a “Terminal Lance” mentality. As an NCO, I was the anti-hero, the antithesis of a leader of Marines, and that doesn’t jive with doctrine and morale. Quietly in the dark corners of my soul, I love the Marine Corps to a fault, but like my metaphorical whore, she didn’t love me and she certainly didn’t need me anymore. I resented her for that. I could have hung around and played her game, but I pouted about my ego. That was a hard lesson to learn.

 I obviously allowed myself to suffer over a decade for my choices. My frustrations with things that I thought I could not change got the better of my character. In the military, especially in the Marine Corps Infantry, I could never assert my individuality, my independence, or my opinion and still expect to thrive. That’s not what you sign up for. “It’s not a fuckin democracy.” I took pride in my own ignorance, fighting for the underdog, and forging a loss for the sake of a warrior poet’s romantic notion of sacrifice. There was some honor in that I suppose, at least it meant something to the guys at the bottom, in the trenches. But it was completely contrary to Sun Tzu’s doctrine in the Art of War. I was emotional and insecure. It was only a matter of time before another drunken Liberty incident and my honor would no longer be clean, or was it already too late? 

My contract was up within two weeks of coming back to the US, with a month of terminal leave. Days prior, I was leading a squad in Iraq while some guys were reenlisting in the combat zone for big bonuses. I was pretty adamant about leaving the Marines for a vagabond life that I hadn’t given much thought to. All I knew was that I was going to live in Australia somehow, and hopefully the girl that I had been chatting to online for the last year, really was who she says she was (you can see where this is going). I’m chuckling at the reality that I was “Catfished” before people knew what that term implied. I was anxious and impulsive, but I felt alienated from a home I no longer knew, so I ran from reality in my shadowy dreams. It was a pivotal point. With several unresolved issues, no family structure, no plan, and a wad of limited, disposable cash in my pocket, I introverted. I drank alone every night in the barracks. Each day, for two weeks, I was methodically planning my exodus with precision. It’s ironic how thorough and efficient that scenario went down considering the check-out process is on your own recognizance (diligent initiative was a silent reward). I was planning the next two weeks of my life, but ignoring the next ten years. My two week transition out of the military ended with a trip to the career retention office. Because of the fact that I had deliberately scoffed off a workable transition plan that takes at least a year to figure out, I had few options at this point. I could have extended briefly to buy some time with my current unit, take whatever duty station that needed numbers, or get out of the Corps completely. It was the moment of truth and the most important moment of my future. Much too important to confront with such poor preparation and disregard for self. My only option was a slot in 7thMarines at Twenty-Nine Stumps. The future was bleak.

Now….everyone has their own unique story of why they joined and why they got out. It’s personal. It’s probably the only two times when you actually have the power to make a decision where no one else is affected but you. All I could think about was my own personal freedom that, after four years, was in the cusp of my grasp. That freedom essentially consisted of a complete emphasis in excess of booze, substances, and women. I was burnt, pursuing a false catharsis. I separated from the military, honorably, after three deployments and four long years. Somehow, avoiding the major pitfalls and close calls that daily life within a grunt unit demands. However, I was careless as I rejoined my civilian counterparts. It was really fun for a while, but there’s a caveat to this story.  Here lies the crux of a two week transition. IT’S ALWAYS FUN WHEN YOU THROW CAUTION TO THE WIND AND REALLY DON’T GIVE A FUCK!  BUT EVENTUALLY, REALITY ENFORCES ITS GRIP and you must conform to the norms of society, earn a wage, support a family, and be a law abiding citizen. None of those things are inherently easy to do. You obviously have to work at it. 

My struggle with transitioning out of the military wasn’t because I didn’t have resources or opportunities. IT WAS BECAUSE I DIDN’T HAVE A PLAN OR THE WHEREWITHAL TO EXECUTE.  IT WAS MY OWN FAULT AND I DIDN’T HOLD MYSELF ACCOUNTABLE. At that time, I felt that I had reached the pinnacle of my life. That nothing I would ever do could compare to leading a squad of Marines into Fallujah, the biggest urban battle of this generation. I had prepared to die in Iraq, so coming home was surreal. I had been given the ultimate responsibility of having people’s lives under my charge, tested in the most extreme circumstances, and had somehow survived, guilt ridden. My self-esteem was falsely inflated in a patriotic cloud of pixie dust, but my soul was deflated and shriveled.  My mindset was not conducive to any rational, decompression process. I didn’t cultivate my skills as leader. I regressed into substances and allowed my ambitions to perish. I want to be clear that I’m not a victim of PTSD. I volunteered for what I was subjected to. There are plenty that have experienced much worse and persevered far beyond any expectation. In combat, I have done things, seen things, and lost things. I never saw a dead body, with its guts exposed, and dogs feasting on its flesh until I was a ripe old, 27 years of age. We all dealt with it differently back in the real world.  Instead of focusing on the positive, I simply allowed my emotions to take control and I quit on myself. I was engulfed in a haze of smoke, alcohol, and a brief stint with benzos. 

After a few years, the economy collapsed in 2008, and I had settled for a dead end, minimum-wage landscaping job. I couldn’t get an apartment because of my criminal record that the Corps had waived before I joined. I had unresolved medical issues. The Post 9/11 GI Bill wasn’t in effect until late 2009 (the single greatest advantage of military service) and I was jumping around from place to place, living with different people. I isolated and took the path of least resistance in every facet of my life. I avoided challenges. I chased the rabbit and spiraled down a hole of meager existence for many years.

It took me a decade to figure shit out for myself and my family. I’ve failed a lot since leaving the military, but I have risen to my feet. I don’t regret my service or my combat experience. I regret that I have not always embraced many simple blessings. I am grateful for a new opportunity each day. I refuse to let my life be in vain for the sake of those who have sacrificed for me.